High Holidays: A Social Justice Introduction

The Yamim Noraim, High Holidays, are a time of personal reflection; gazing at the year past and looking ahead to the coming year. One month before Rosh HaShanah, at Rosh Hodesh Elul (the first of the month of Elul), Jews the world over begin the process of taking a cheshbon nefesh, an accounting of the soul, in which we account not only for what we have done but also of what we have not done for ourselves, our community, and the world. As we celebrate the new year and seek atonement for the times we have come up short, we pray that our t’shuvah, t’fillah, and tzedakah (repentance, prayer and charity) will be enough to sustain us for the year to come. 

The goal of this guide is to give both individuals and congregations a resource that helps them to integrate and incorporate social action programming into their holiday practices. The guide provides text studies surrounding each of these issues as they relate to the High Holidays, programming ideas that can be performed in religious schools, synagogues, and the home, and background information about these issues. By connecting our ancient tradition with education and action surrounding these issues of social justice, we make our Judaism come alive and live out the moral values that our movement believes in.

Rosh HaShanah and Environmental Protection

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish new year, celebrates the birthday of the world. As the Midrash teaches us that God finished creation on Rosh HaShanah, the holiday also commemorates the sovereignty of God over the world. As such, on Rosh HaShanah, the entire world is judged on the basis of the merit of their actions in the past year. As Rosh HaShanah celebrates creation, we are called to think of our role as guardians of that creation, who are faced with enormous challenges in preserving the environment.

High Holy Days, Forgiveness and the Criminal Justice System 

On Yom Kippur, Jews all over the world fast and spend the day praying. The fast is meant to clear our minds in order to foster a deep connection with God as we try to repent and return to the best versions of ourselves. The Talmud teaches us that the merit in the fast day lies in the charity dispensed. This serves to teach us that our fasting, our self-reflection, and our atonement alone are not complete without acts of loving-kindness and compassion for the world and our fellow human beings. 

Between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we have the power to change the fate of our judgment. This is why we say in the Un’tane Tokef prayer that “repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.” These three acts are necessary to lead us down the path of redemption. During the High Holidays, as we account for our sins over the past year, we also turn our attention to the criminal justice system, and ask if everyone who passes through it is treated equally and justly.

Yom Kippur and Remembering the Hungry

During Yom Kippur, we work together to fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah, who commanded us to strive to “unlock the fetters of wickedness...let the oppressed go free...share your bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into your home” (Isaiah 58:6-8). Our fast on Yom Kippur cals us to action as we consider the plight of people who deal with the pangs of hunger throughout the year.